Paul Cheney

Optimizing Copy: The 7 most common copywriting mistakes we see marketers make

There’s a lot of bunk information out there about copywriting. The barrier to entry for being an “expert copywriter” is pretty low and some of those crossing that barrier are simply wrong when they give advice.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some great copywriters out there. What’s funny though is that most of us here at MarketingExperiments wouldn’t claim to be one of them (even the great Daniel Burstein).

But what we lack in copywriting prowess, we gain in mountains of research on copy that works and doesn’t work. We’ll be sharing a bit of that research with you on Wednesday in our copywriting Web clinic (educational funding provided by HubSpot.) if you’d like to learn more. But, throughout that research, we’ve picked up on a few commonalities in the mistakes copywriters make.

With the help of Austin McCraw’s unused slides from the Optimization Summit, I went ahead and took some of those commonalities and compiled them into a list of common mistakes marketers make when they’re writing copy.

After every mistake, there’s an example of how we fixed it and got dramatic lifts in each case. No bunk copywriting advice included. Just data.

Mistake #1: Headlines with no value

It seems like anytime someone writes about headlines, they use this quote from David Ogilvy:

“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”

Of course, clichés get to be clichés because they’re true. When it comes to grabbing your reader’s attention, nothing works better than a solid value-based headline. Your headline should offer the reader a reason to read that first paragraph in your body copy.

Example:

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Mistake #2: Action-centric calls-to-action

“Action words” or “power verbs” get touted a lot by copywriters the world over as the ultimate tool for getting prospects to buy. But our research suggests that focusing on the action that you want your visitors to take hurts conversion.

It’s not about the action itself, it’s about the value they’re going to get as a result of taking that action. Getting that right in your CTA can give you dramatic lifts with very little effort.

Example:

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Mistake #3: Saying too much

If you are, or ever have been married, you know exactly how this hurts conversion. Assuming conversion means getting to sleep in your bed rather than the couch, saying too much can take you from a 99.9% to somewhere around a .01% conversion rate.

The same is true for your copy. Depending on where your reader is in their thought process, you could be saying way too much when all they want to do is take action. That’s exactly what we found was the case in this experiment…

Example:

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Mistake #4: Saying too little

If you thought you were safe on that last one, try this one on for size. Again, depending on where the reader is in their thought process, saying too little is just as bad as saying too much. Your reader needs exactly the right amount of copy to get them to make the decision on the page.

Sometimes that takes 30 pages of long copy, sometimes it takes a few words. In the following experiment, we found that we weren’t giving the visitor enough information to make a decision. Because they were in a different place in the thought process, they needed longer copy.

Example:

click to enlarge

Mistake #5: Misplacing your tone

Your audience expects to be spoken to in a certain way. You don’t usually speak to an adult like they’re a toddler and vice versa. A lot of times, copywriters miss the mark a little in their tone. It might not be as dramatic as speaking in baby-talk to paying customers, but it could mean rubbing them the wrong way, even a little with not just what you say, but how you say it.

Example:

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Mistake #6:  Visual intimidation

An unclear eye-path in your copy that doesn’t match the thought sequence in your reader almost always hurts conversion. Heavy text without any highlighting, bullets, or bold text to pull the eye through the page is a great example of making this mistake. It also happens with the ever-popular design tactic: evenly weighted columns.

Example:

click to enlarge

Mistake #7: Disconnected images

Good copywriters know that images are as much a part of the copywriting process as anything else. Images can support the overall value of the action you want your visitors to take on the page, but they can also cause confusion.

When a reader sees an image that makes her think, it forces her to use extra effort in understanding your offer. That’s the last thing you want your reader doing on a landing page.

Example:

click to enlarge

Bonus Mistake: Not testing your copy

The biggest mistake you can make in your copy is not testing. You can read all the blog posts you want on the 7 mistakes to avoid, or strategies to consider, or phrases that sell, but until you’ve tested it for your own audience, you’ll never know for sure how your copy is actually doing.

Example:

So with that in mind, I’m going to run a little unscientific test on the copy in this blog post. When I sent this post to my editor, Daniel, I gave him an alternate opening. I expected him to pick one for me to publish, but instead he suggested I test it.

However, since we don’t yet know of a way to A/B test a blog post in a scientifically valid way, we’d like you to vote in the comments about which is the better writing. Again, this isn’t very scientific, but it will help to settle a little bet.

Here’s the alternate beginning:

[Every once in a while, Austin McCraw, Daniel Burstein and I disagree about what gets posted on this blog. Daniel and I tend to be very giving. We always try to over-deliver when we write our posts. Austin, on the other hand, likes to hold back his best content for our Web clinics.

Ever championing your cause, dear blog reader, Daniel and I decided to steal some of Austin’s great content on copywriting and post it here without asking! We’re hoping that asking for forgiveness is better than asking permission in this case. ;)

So without further ado, here are 7 common mistakes most copywriters make when writing copy for their campaigns. After each mistake, there’s an example from our research detailing how we turned those mistakes into sizable lifts in conversion:]

Now, if you would, please vote for the opening you like the best. I’ve got a lot on the line in this one, so I’d appreciate your input.

Related Resources:

Copywriting on Tight Deadlines: How ordinary marketers are achieving 200% gains with a step-by-step framework (Web clinic on Wednesday with educational funding provided by HubSpot.)

Copywriting: How your peers write effective copy on short deadlines

Headline Optimization: 2 common headline mistakes and how to make them work

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  1. Shelley List
    August 15th, 2011 at 11:10 | #1

    The first opening for sure. With all due respect—I’m sure you’re all great guys—I don’t know the cast of characters and the alternate opening is frankly fluff. It violates all your best copywriting advice.

  2. Kris Grzegorczyk
    August 15th, 2011 at 11:13 | #2

    @Paul Cheney
    My comment was very much tongue in cheek :)
    Not a bad idea, though. There’s a lot of good insight in the comments about how many people skipped the opening altogether – I certainly learned a lot from reading those comments.

  3. August 15th, 2011 at 11:18 | #3

    @Kris Grzegorczyk
    There certainly is a lot of great insight. We should test some blog posts without intros altogether. :)

  4. Kathy
    August 15th, 2011 at 11:20 | #4

    I liked the beginning that you actually used. Don’t want to throw your teammates under the bus!

  5. August 15th, 2011 at 11:31 | #5

    I prefer the first opening. The second one tells me too much about how you interact with your co-workers. I like the idea that you borrowed Austin’s great content though I don’t need to know that he wasn’t aware of it.

  6. August 15th, 2011 at 11:35 | #6

    The first opening is stronger because it’s more reader-inclusive. Which is, I suppose, when you plumped for it. Thanks for the article. I’m forwarding this to my publishers.

    s

  7. @SteveCoppola
    August 15th, 2011 at 11:40 | #7

    The first opening. More relevant.

  8. August 15th, 2011 at 11:51 | #8

    No question. The first one. It hooked me. I read the whole post. I’m not sure I would have with the alternate. It’s boring. As Shelley said, I don’t know the players, so the blather about them is meaningless to me.

  9. August 15th, 2011 at 12:06 | #9

    The first one was better. Got me interested to see what you thought was bunk. Also, the second suggested lack of respect for each other which rubbed me the wrong way.

    Great article….always looking for ways to keep things fresh in my mind.

  10. August 15th, 2011 at 12:16 | #10

    The first one hands down however, I confess that I didn’t read it initially. The header piqued my interest and I immediately jumped to Mistake #1.

    Great post. Thanks for the valuable tips.

  11. jack
    August 15th, 2011 at 13:09 | #11

    Add: and underlying great copy is the architecture of solid, clear design.

    Spacing, typography, color harmony, balance, and clarity — whether simple or bold — cannot be extracted from great copywriting.

    $.02

  12. August 15th, 2011 at 13:32 | #12

    The first one is better, though honestly I usually skip over the intro paragraph and go to the first subhead when I click a link from an email to an article I already know I’m interested in. I read a lot of articles.

  13. August 15th, 2011 at 13:35 | #13

    The second intro also sounds like you indulge in unethical practices, even if it’s in jest. Copyright infringement isn’t cute.

  14. Stan Robinson, Jr.
    August 15th, 2011 at 13:35 | #14

    The first opening. I particularly like the second and third paragraphs highlighting the importance of research.

  15. August 15th, 2011 at 14:18 | #15

    The first opening is the best. Unless the reader cares about you guy having a tiff about copywriting…

  16. August 15th, 2011 at 14:20 | #16

    I prefer the first, the second might have lost me as I don’t know the people well enough to engage at that level.

  17. August 15th, 2011 at 14:21 | #17

    I prefer the opening you used. It certainly caught my attention, and I read on. Since I don’t know you and your colleagues very well, I’m not sure the alternative would have grabbed me.

  18. August 15th, 2011 at 14:33 | #18

    The first lead is the best…I don’t want to be making copywriting mistakes, so if your audience is writers like me, you got my interest with this opening. The alternate opening has nothing to do with me.

  19. Holly
    August 15th, 2011 at 15:33 | #19

    The first opening is more reassuring to me as a copywriter. It’s also comforting to know the folks I consider experts do not consider themselves experts, but constantly learning how to do it better. The first opening created a bond of understanding between you and the reader.

  20. August 15th, 2011 at 17:16 | #20

    First one is better. The 2nd one uses too many words and goes into things that have no bearing on the promise in the title.

  21. Cassidy
    August 15th, 2011 at 17:51 | #21

    I think the intro you’re using right now is a lot better. The alt. intro is too personal while the one being used jumps to the point. Thanks for the tips though, I’m going to pass them on to my writers.

  22. August 15th, 2011 at 18:00 | #22

    Wouldn’t it be possible to test blog posts with regular tracking links and a script that throws out 2 versions of the post with it being fed to an RSS feed to see which gets the most activity…?

  23. Jai Thampi
    August 15th, 2011 at 21:41 | #23

    Must admit, I had initially skipped the intro because the title of the article was so powerful my eyes went straight to the next bold text “Mistake #1″ :)

    My vote actually goes for the intro 2 (the personal touch). It gave me a feeling of something exclusive, as if I’m going to receive something I’d otherwise get only via a web clinic.

    That being said, the text was way too personal and bordered on Mistake #5 in the tone and content. Perhaps you could add some bits of information from the intro 1 into intro 2, right before the statement “So without further ado, here are 7….”.

  24. August 15th, 2011 at 23:09 | #24

    So you want me to tell you my subjective choice for an opening? Well I like the third one, now you just have to write it.

    I think experiments are great, but I think this because they are not subjective. That is, people are not thinking about a choice, they just react to what is in front of them. Asking us what we think is not an experiment because their is no control – you are just taking a poll and it’s not the same thing.

    Try this experiment: Set up an experiment with a, b, and maybe c choices. Get a lot of people to vote on their selections, then test the same thing on people that don’t know they are being tested. See if the results match, but I would be surprised if they do.

    I like both openings, but if you are testing for conversions, this is a bad experiment. Why? Because I wanted to read about the 7 mistakes and my conversion was already assured. The only way I would not convert is if you did a bait and switch and told me to get the information would cost me $14.95. :-)

  25. August 16th, 2011 at 01:06 | #25

    Nice portfolio pitching what you can do. Let me just say that for most of these before/after examples, the reasoning behind the success of the change may be flawed. #1 – well, I’ll spot you that one. #2 – without the context of the text around these buttons, there’s no way to say for sure if it was the button text or other design elements. #3 and#4 – give me a break…now you’ve got everybody paranoid. #5 – I actually found the humorous tone more readable, but if your audience is dull, then maybe the copy should be, too. #6 – Chaise lounges on the Titanic. Maybe SEO made that page work better. #7 – It’s not the stock image, it was diminishing the “take the tour” button so that people didn’t just run off looking at samples.

    As for the first or alternative intro, I would offer Mr. McCraw’s 3rd version as the best alternative, as the writing is crisp, and the logic flawless. ;-)

  26. Lynne C
    August 16th, 2011 at 07:59 | #26

    Definitely the first one – the second is too woolly and I have to agree with Elzabeth at number 13 about inappropriate practices.

  27. August 16th, 2011 at 08:03 | #27

    I liked the first opening. It grabbed my attention and I wanted to learn more. The comparisons gave the reader concrete examples. Great information, thanks!

  28. August 16th, 2011 at 10:16 | #28

    @Mike Knight
    Yes it’s possible, but…

    1. Based on the amount of traffic and the number of comments we usually get, there’s probably no way for a test like that to be statistically significant.

    2. We wouldn’t have provoked such a lively discussion! :)

  29. Sara Spradlin
    August 16th, 2011 at 13:48 | #29

    The second–fun–but not professional. The first–cleaner and straight to the jugular.
    Thanks for the info!

  30. Alison Hull
    August 16th, 2011 at 19:37 | #30

    I really like the first opening. When admitting that you do not claim to be an expert copywriter, I feel myself associating with you more and I can see the “real person” behind the post. It makes you not only more believable, but sets the stage for how you make it work without being an expert “…we gain in mountains of research on copy that works and doesn’t work” and also leads in nicely to a plug for the copywriting web clinic.

  31. August 17th, 2011 at 16:06 | #31

    Good list of things to keep an eye at. True, there are far too many “expert copywriters” and this is why the web is so messy. I wonder if there’s a test in your database on focused vs. unfocused narrative. There are one too many examples where copywriters try to cover too many keywords, say too many things with a single post, and they end up producing an un-SEOed text that actually says nothing.
    I recently wrote a post on how
    to write good web copy
    which I think many copywriters should read. Writing for the web is similar to public speaking, you better know what you want to say, and you better state what your main point is, or people may miss it altogether and wonder off in unsupervised thinking, as Dr. Flint says.

  32. September 1st, 2011 at 12:53 | #32

    Several things are in my head from your blog:

    1) Forgivemy saying, but both choices in item #5 are awful. one is slick and not relevant, and the other is sophomoric (“Certification Certificate”???)

    2) The 1st intro is far better. It let’s me know what I’m going to read (and therefore why to continue). The other has no relevancy for me, no offers of what I might get by reading, and alienates me by ongoing reference to people I don’t know or care about (sorry, luvs).

    3) this whole blog is very well set up for marketing your services and capturing our info for future reference and use. But…

    4) A “Post” button would be better than whatever I’m seeing down there now.. is it “Join the conversation”? That makes me wary of joining something more than just this posting. I have no idea what to click to post this comment! Here’s hoping…

  33. September 29th, 2011 at 18:15 | #33

    I’m sad to say I had to scroll back up to read the opening when you asked for our vote. I skipped right over it and went straight to the “meat.” I do like the one you used and didn’t care for the alternate. But it’s a good reminder that people open a link for the “gift” of the 7 tips and not for all the clever verbiage we put in front of them.

    I like reading blogs with good advice, no matter how they are formatted. I would rather read one good post a month like yours than slog through daily posts that have little to offer.

    Great content! Thanks! (Oh, and BTW, notice how long it took me to get to the party… some of us take months to get through our reading. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t like the headline or didn’t want to read it… also good to know.)

  34. October 4th, 2011 at 09:13 | #34

    Maybe no intro is the best choice. When I was reading the actually published intro — and I did read it before skipping to Mistake 1 — I remember thinking “Let’s get on with it.” The second opening was fun — perhaps because I had just read the whole post and was starting to get to know you. I’m not sure how I would have reacted if I had read that introduction before reading your fine seven points. It might have tainted my reading. My suspicion: I would have been intrigued to find out more about Austin and why he thinks differently than his colleagues and less interested in copywriting mistakes.

  35. October 4th, 2011 at 09:49 | #35

    @Judith Gotwald
    Ha! Thanks for the comment Judith. I’m so glad I was able make Austin seem more intriguing.

  36. Mary P
    October 28th, 2011 at 12:01 | #36

    Neither was necessary. I just wanted the info. The title by itself was enough to get me to read. The second alternative intro was great at the end as an explanation (if I wanted it). The first one dissed copywriters (even if somewhat warranted). I don’t think any copywriter intentionally sets out to do a poor job. So if you want to help copywriters improve their writing by using your principles, you may not have made any friends among those who need it most. Guess it just depends on the target audience for your post. ;-)

  37. Sharon K.
    October 29th, 2011 at 22:50 | #37

    Okay, in all honesty, I read the original opening and didn’t retain a thing except for something about unused slides. Enjoyed the meat of it and then got to the end, where you had the alternate. So…uhhhh…what was that original intro? Scroll back up. Read. Ehh. Okay. Scroll back down. Read alternate intro. Laugh. That said, while the second made me laugh, the first probably was more appropriate. And since I’m not a subscriber–I came to your blog by way of HubSpot–I think I’ll subscribe to it. So there you have it. Whatever it is…

  38. December 16th, 2011 at 04:17 | #38

    Great post!
    I think you deliberately put the second intro to be so contrasting so we vote for the first one, which was actually chosen and prove how good writer you are. :)
    BTW, the post benefits from your pretty picture as well but I am sure you are quite aware of that :)

  39. December 16th, 2011 at 09:13 | #39

    @Milena K,
    And here I was thinking I was going to get away with it… :( Whelp, guess there’s no use hiding. You’re right. I’m completely brilliant, beautiful, and aware. ;)

  40. December 19th, 2011 at 02:51 | #40

    @Paul Cheney Good for you and shame on me for stating the obvious, apparently :) Let’s pretend that your honestly makes up for the lack of humility and gains you a fan ;)

  41. Charlotte G
    February 21st, 2012 at 14:04 | #41

    The first one definitely and I have read the whole post which I found enlightening. In the second intro I switched off and was bored.

  42. Jay
    June 7th, 2012 at 18:07 | #42

    Just a slightly off topic question;

    In slide #7 for the email marketing campaign, the numbers look a little “off” to me…

    Instead of $10 per month fee, did they ever test CONVERSIONS at $9.99 per month?

    and instead of a bonus being a $99 value, why not the bonus being a $100 value?

    Has there been any testing regarding that in general?

    It seems that it works well for gas stations and the walmarts of the world.

    Thanks in advance.

  43. June 8th, 2012 at 12:55 | #43

    @Jay
    No, unfortunately they never tested that. And I don’t think we’ve done any serious testing around that idea either.

    You might find this interesting however: http://www.marketingexperiments.com/blog/research-topics/response-capture-case-study.html

    One of our students tested an incentive at different price points for some surprising results.

  44. June 29th, 2012 at 16:14 | #44

    I prefer the first opening too.

    However, it seems as though one problem is to do with the version you read first. In my experience, that’s often the one I prefer, whatever the content (e.g. songs vs. cover versions) – maybe it’s to do with the principle of consistency?

  45. Doug Barger
    December 7th, 2012 at 21:28 | #45

    In “mistake #2″ where you say action-centric cta’s are a mistake and provide an example,

    the winning control example actually is the one that used the action centric cta. “Get”.

    The one it beat out only asked a question about an action.

    This may be the problem with only having the “what” of the results from research and not knowing “why” you got those results from the research.

    In my testing, the more clear, specific and direct you can be with your call to action (tell exactly what and how to do it), the higher the conversion rate without fail.

    I only comment to add the correction in the hope it saves a reader from getting confused.

  46. May 7th, 2013 at 12:30 | #46

    Very clever way to get people to comment. After all that sound advice I can’t believe there was a question about which opening was better. Nicely done!

  47. August 8th, 2013 at 22:22 | #47

    We do a lot of pay per click advertising and this is clearly relevant. It has also made us consider our description text on our webpages. We will update and hopefully see a significant percentage increase.

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